Corey's Column (by Corey Emerson, Rolling Stone Videozone)

As I sit here in front of my TV watching Jinsei slowly fight its way across the Neo York Zero Law Enforcement Zone I am reminded of the many times I want across the Williamsburg Bridge. Not in search of land or a gunfight (or whatever it is Jinsei wants with the Zone) but in search of a story. Any kind of story. Stories about people, about life under conditions many of us would consider unbearable, about life, death, growing up, and growing old.

I am also reminded of the first time I visited Zero Zone, on a trip to the fabled 93 Underground, the Zone's most popular tourist attraction. I'd been asked by some coworkers if I wanted to come and jumped at the chance, having only heard of the place by rumor. We all went in an armored van, driving across the same bridge Jinsei is now using as an invasion point. My curiosity overcoming my common sense, I hovered near a small window, staring out at a landscape unlike most anything I was used to. It was summer and the sun still hadn't set by the time we entered the Zone, so I could get a fairly clear glimpse of the ruined buildings, thick stands of vegetation, and the jury-rigged contraptions that pass for transportation in the Zone.

And then there were the people... All ages, all sizes, shapes, and colors. Some sported obvious cyberware, others, marks of disease and illness. There were even replicated humans standing on the street corners, looking very much at home and not at all like someone's domestic servant.

Now I hear Jinsei is simply shooting any replicated humans they find.

When we piled out of the van it was in front of a modest looking building. I suspect it had been some sort of supermarket long ago, but now has been so heavily modified as to be unrecognizable. I really wish I'd gotten around to doing that 93 Underground profile I'd been planning on. But I digress.

We were let in by a heavily cybered doorman, who looked rather stylish in his white dress shirt and black vest. Inside was a crowd unlike any I'd ever seen before, and have never seen since in a Neo York club. Citizens of the Zone and of the City were mixed together, a potpourri of corporate wageslaves, Zone gangers, honest citizens, crime bosses, humans, cyborgs, synthetics... in short, everyone.

We ended up sitting at a large table near the stage, where by fellow journalists told me I was in for a treat; Dawn was playing.

Now I'd never heard of Dawn and the Razor's Edge before, and certainly didn't know what to expect. For a moment I heard the name "Dawn" and almost expected some sort of teenaged bubblegum sexpot with blonde hair, impossibly large breasts, and a genetically tailored body.

Well... I got one part of it right.

Dawn was blonde all right, and I can tell you that yes, she is a woman and does have breasts, but there the resemblance to my mental image ended. The woman on stage was dressed in dark green boots, black jeans, a sleeveless dark green synthleather overtunic, and a white long-sleeved shirt. She also was wearing green gloves, but dropped those fairly quickly (the better to play guitar with of course). Speaking of guitars, she had a black and green one slung over one shoulder. I eventually discovered the Zone's Queen of Rock and Roll plays a Fender Millennium Stratocaster, and I can tell you this: she plays it loud.

The rest of the Razor's Edge consists of Leon on drums, Rachel on keyboards, and Roy on bass. They are deserve far more press then they usually get (even in this magazine), and are all excellent musicians. I understand they are some of the few people who can travel about the Zone relatively unmolested, although all four carry free passes to their concerts, "just in case."

The evening's music started with what I can only describe as a cacophony of noise as Dawn sort of went... well... berserk on her guitar. Leon and Rachel kept up, and after a few moments of making her guitar do just about everything (up to and including scream in pain), Dawn mercifully laid off and let Rachel work her way through an almost soothing keyboard sequence. Of course, I, not knowing any better, leaned over and asked "that's it?" to one of my companions. His response was to simply grin. As for Dawn she stood up on stage, not moving and not really looking at the crowd. And if I'd been paying attention I'd have noticed her smirk right before I lost my hearing.

Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but I did jump when she suddenly started blasting out chords on the guitar. The opening lyrics didn't help either, coming as they did with no more warning than Dawn's raising her hand to her guitar. And like most song lyrics they didn't make a world of sense when you thought about them. I mean... "Good golly said little Miss Molly/When she was rockin in the house of the blue light"?

Anyway, at that moment Dawn was off and running, tearing her way though a song whose title I can only guess is "Speed King," since that was the lyric repeated most often. And she didn't stop there. As one of my coworkers once said, 'she can play guitar like a motherfucking riot.' My own comment—once I got back—on how the concert went was pretty much along the same lines. If I recall, my reply was, 'I just watched a woman have sex with her guitar for 90 minutes, how did you think it went?'

But now I hear Jinsei has taken 93 Underground. It being New Years Eve I can only presume Dawn and her band were playing and playing loud. They might not even have heard the order to stop. And not even the news that The Empress herself single-handedly killed nearly twenty Jinsei stormtroopers can make up for the loss of one Goddess of Guitar.

Where do I go when I want to get away from people? A lot of places. Usually, "getting away from people" means "getting away from my tenants," as most other people don't drive me up the wall on a daily basis. But right now I want to get away from people. Any and all people. Especially human people.

Earlier I caught sight of the news, and of Jinsei International Corporation's invasion of the Neo York Zero Law Enforcement Zone. Normally I don't follow the news, as very little of it affects me, but this held my attention. For one reason, I know someone in the Neo York Zero Zone, a former tenant named Sandra Blackmore, who said she'd return one day. Now I don't know if she ever will. Secondly, because I managed to overhear one of my tenants get a call from someone in said Zone, and I listened to the man die on the phone. And finally, the news reporter oh-so-helpfully pointed out that Jinsei, among other things, was making a point of simply killing any free-roaming synthetic humans it found in the Zone.

Free-roaming synthetic humans like myself for example.

I think that's what did it to me. The idea that somewhere synthetic humans just like myself were being killed out of hand for the simple reason that they weren't under anyone's control. That if I wasn't lucky enough to have an Australian citizenship the same thing could happen to me right here in Hong Kong.

So I decided to get away from people for a while. I went to the Hong Kong Aquarium. I know that sounds a bit odd, so let me explain. The center of the Hong Kong Aquarium is made up of a huge ring-tank that you circle down inside of on a wide ramp. At the bottom of the tank there are benches near the aquarium windows, as well as a lot of blue lights and dark shadows. The music is a soothing mix of natural sounds and classical. And if I dress right, my blue-skinned self pretty much vanishes.

I sit on a bench and watch the fish go by. The place is virtually deserted, its cool down here, and no one can see me. For a while, a short while, I can be alone—no mean feat considering Hong Kong's population.

So here I sit, trying, and failing, to not think about life, death, and the fate of synthetic humans in the Neo York Zero Zone.

The Neo York Zero Zone, Jinsei Trooper Peter North decided, was one weird place. Half of it looked like a bombed-out dump, while the other half was a virtual jungle. There were cars with trees growing out of them and buildings with a lake for a basement. Not to mention all the freaks who lived here. There were humans, 'borgs, skin-jobs... all of who seemed to be armed, and all of whom seemed to know exactly where to hide to snipe at a trooper on patrol. In his seven years with Jinsei he'd seen exactly six guys buy the farm in combat. Here in the Zone he saw six in one day. If it was up to him he'd simply carpet bomb the place into a parking lot first and then set up shop. But, of course, it wasn't up to him, which is why he was currently sitting on the edge of an old bridge watching the water go by.

The one safe place in the Zone, and this was using a very loose definition of the term "safe," was the Jinsei Tactical Operations Center near the Willamsburg Bridge. There Jinsei had the Wolf Brigade, a small army of cyberdroids, armor, and most important of all, a medical unit. Its where the troops went for a little R&R every few days, as well as where new troops were staged before being sent out into the Zone. And there were a lot of new troops. Jinsei may have started with just elite troops picked from its Japanese arcs, but now troopers were being called in from all over the place. Peter was fairly sure this wasn't a good sign. On the other hand, the pay was twice what he'd been making, so he couldn't complain.

"Yo, Peter?"

"Whaddya want, Ron?"

Ron Jeremy was one of the biggest men in Peter's unit. He stood taller than a Puma and was nearly as strong. His job was support, hauling around belt-fed Ares LMG like the Wolf Brigade used, except he didn't get any Jinsei Protect gear, just the normal back-and-breast clamshell vest and helmet the regular troopers used.

"You hear what happened?"

"What now?"

"The Empress wiped out a whole platoon of the Brigade."

Peter stared at his fellow soldier. "Yer shittn' me."

Ron raised his hands. "No lie. They went to take some bar down there and there she was. I hear they were dumb enough to open up without calling for some back-up. Just made her mad, y'know. Killed like... twenty-four before she left."

"When was this?" The last thing Peter wanted to do was run into a esper-weapon. He'd seen what one could do once, and the Zone was supposed to be crawling with them.

"Before we got here... Day of the invasion I hear. Made the brass change their plans pretty damn quick."

"I'll bet." Peter glanced over to his other companion, one Barocca Vasquez. Barocca was five-foot ten inches of dark-skinned goddess, with rich black hair and a body that defied description. She was also one of the tougher troopers in the squad—a side effect of no one thinking she could handle it. And right now she was...

"Barocca, what the hell are you doing?"

Without looking up, she answered, "Feeding the fish."

"Fish?" Peter looked down. The water was fairly slow-moving and actually somewhat clear. Dark shapes darted about, coming to the surface and diving down as they snapped up the bits of bread she was tossing in.

"Well, I'll be damned."

Ron glanced over and whistled. "And me without my pole."

Peter nodded, "Fresh fish would be a nice change from that crap they've been feeding us. Meals-Ready-To-Eat my ass... that shit tastes like cardboard."

There was a moment of silence and then Peter and Ron looked at each other. "Grenade!" they cried in unison.

However, before they could get up, the voice of reason cut through. "Don't be stupid!" Barocca exclaimed, "Fire off a grenade and you'll get all three of us in more trouble than I want to think about. And I'm not risking a promotion for fresh fish."

"Crap." Peter and Ron flopped back down onto the pavement, unable to find fault with her logic. Misuse of ordinance was greatly frowned upon by the high-command, unless it was in the field. Even claiming an intruder in the water probably wouldn't be enough to justify a grenade.

"So use a knife instead."

"Wha---?" Peter looked back over. "A knife?"

Barocca held up her glittering combat knife. "Yup. Take one in hand-to-hand."

"Oh really?" Peter replied sarcastically. "And how do I do that?"

"Oh, that's easy," Ron interjected. "Ya gotta noodle for it."

"Noodle?" Now it was Peter and Barocca's turn to look perplexed.

"Yeah, noodle." Ron held up on hand and wiggled his fingers. "Ya stick yer fingers down in the water and scare up a fish with them. Then gig 'em with the knife. Used to do it all the time back home."

"And where was that?" Peter wanted to know.


"Right." Peter had always thought people from the CAS were nuts, and this only confirmed it. "Look, I'm not going fishing by using my hand as bait."

"Why not?" Barocca asked. "Big guy like you scared of a little fish?" She gave him a sly smile and a wink.

"Aw hell," Ron opinioned, "I'll bet there's nothing down there bigger than your fist anyway."

"I said I'm..." Peter started and then stopped. If there was one thing he learned in his years with Jinsei it was the concept of "face." Face was a mixture of honor, respect, and prestige. You gave "face" to those you respected, or if you didn't respect them, you gave them face anyway, to show how with it you were. Losing face meant losing respect and prestige. And although he had no desire to tromp around in an icy stream looking for a fish, just so he could stab it with a knife, he also didn't want to deal with the repercussions of losing face to Barocca and Ron—not because he cared what they thought, but because they'd end up telling everyone else—and that sort of loss if face he didn't want to deal with.

"Give me the knife."

Standing thigh-deep in icy water was not Peter's idea of fun. It, in fact was far from it. Actually, his idea of fun did involve water, but it would be hot water, as in a hot tub. It also required Barocca and himself, and maybe some margaritas. But Barocca naked in a hot tub was good enough.

"Wiggle yer hands!" Ron called from the bridge. "Ya gotta noodle for 'em."

"Yeah, yeah." Ron's advice was great... provided you wanted to catch a fish with your bare hands. It also didn't help his yelling had probably scared all the fish way away. But just to satisfy the man he put his left hand into the water and wiggled his fingers to and fro, slowly walking across the stream as he did so. With luck he'd not catch anything (except maybe a cold), and he could get out of this with his dignity (and face) intact.

Then the stream opened up and swallowed his hand.

For a moment Peter just stood there, wiggling his fingers and trying to decide what, exactly, had happened. He couldn't really feel anything with his left hand, and slowly it dawned on him that was because what-ever-it-was in the water had apparently swallowed most of his arm.

Lunging forward, Peter slammed the knife into a broad expanse of dark gray-green skin, only to have his fist bounce off of the slimy flesh. He glanced over at his knife hand and felt a sickening sensation in the pit of his stomach. At some point in the last thirty seconds, he'd dropped his knife.

Up on the bridge, Barocca and Ron both agreed that Peter screamed just like a little girl.

Rising to his full height of six-foot two inches, Peter decided he was going to use his 220 pounds of mass to simply pull his arm free—loss of face or not, he was getting the hell out of the stream. Unfortunately for him, six feet eight inches and 285 pounds of flathead catfish decided otherwise.

As they watched in openmouthed amazement, Barocca and Ron were treated to the sight of a large dark... something twisting around in the water, tossing Peter into the stream with a huge splash. For a moment they could clearly see the giant fish next to their fellow trooper, and the size difference was staggering.

"Shit," Ron muttered.

"Fuck," Barocca agreed.

"Shit fuck," Ron returned as way of emphasis.

Then they both looked at each other. "We need guns."

It seemed almost a stupid way to die—drowned by a fish in an icy-cold Neo Zone stream. Of course, being drowned by a fish the size of a small car (or so it seemed) only made it marginally better. On the other hand, Peter really would rather not be drowned at all. The only problem was convincing seven feet of monster catfish of this very fact.

For a brief moment he managed to get his head above the surface of the water and took a deep breath of sweet air. Then two figures came crashing into the stream, hollering for him to hold on as they'd be there in just a moment.

The first thing Barocca thought when she hit the stream was how cold the water was. Then she hoped she didn't fall face-first, or, at least, not twist an ankle. With Ron bellowing behind her—he sounded like an angry elephant—she'd run the risk of getting trampled, which wasn't exactly the most dignified way to go, although getting drowned by a monster fish wasn't an improvement. No matter how you looked at it, none of this was going to look good on a resume.

Spotting Peter's head, she pointed, calling out "There he is!" Ron muscled his way past, reaching out to grab Peter's failing arm in one massive paw. "I got you! I got you!" Ron yelled over and over, while waving his rifle around wildly.

Coming up behind the pair, Barocca snapped the bolt back on her weapon trying to spot the catfish's shape amid all the spray. Considering its size you'd think it would have been easy.

"Where is it?"

"I... I dunno!" Peter choked out. "Just shoot the fuckin' thing!!"

"Right. Ron, you hold on to Peter, I'm gonna take care of the fish."

Raising her rifle to her shoulder, Barocca fired short bursts into the water, trying to hit the flathead's massive bulk. The only problem was the fish was currently protected by some of the best bullet-resistant armor in the world—a few inches of water. Still, it seemed to have some effect—or, at least, looked real impressive.

Still yammering that he had Peter, Ron aimed his own weapon one-handed, strafing the stream. The water exploded into a series of miniature eruptions, as each bullet ripped into the surface—only to not go much further. But at least they were fighting back.

Feeling Peter slip in his grasp, Ron dropped his rifle (apparently forgetting he was standing in a stream) and grabbed Peter by his other arm. He then commenced to engage in a tug-of-war with a fish that was either to mean, too hungry, or too stupid to give in and let go. Or all three.

"Aha!" Barocca exclaimed as the fish's head broke water for just a second. Jamming the muzzle of her weapon against an expanse if slick black skin she pulled the trigger.

For a long moment there was only silence, followed by the sound of coughing and retching. Using his free hand (his other felt numb and didn't want to respond to any commands yet—such as "move"), Peter wiped blood and fish guts out of his eyes and off of his face. "Way to go, Sherlock," he mumbled.

Covered from head to thighs in gore, Barocca resisted the urge to scream. Feeling something wet oozing down her front and between her breasts wasn't helping. "I think it's guts went down my shirt," she replied in a flat tone of voice, blinking her eyes clear.

Having been protected from the worst of the mess by virtue of standing behind Peter, Ron glanced over his fellow soldier's shoulder. "Peter all buddy, it looks like yer free. Seems you lost a glove, though. And some of your sleeve."

Peter looked down at his arm. The big man was right—his glove was gone, most likely swallowed by the flathead, as was most of his sleeve. He tried to wiggle his fingers, and to his amazement, they responded. Looking back up at Ron, he put as much disgust into his voice as he could muster.

"You and your damn noodling..."

Since the initial invasion, the Jinsei attacks into the Zone had been pretty much constant and relentless. They may have had the old "strategic withdrawal" but it seemed that for every time they fell back, they'd begin an advance somewhere else. The truth of the situation, form the point of view of many people, was that Jinsei's victory was merely a matter of time. The Zone's defenders had a limited number of troops that they could field, and no ready source of fresh weapons and supplies. Conversely, Jinsei seemed to be willing to keep throwing troops into the Zone. So long as they had other divisions to bring men from, they would.

Initially the Jinsei troops seen in the Zone had been all Japanese, presumably pulled form their prestigious Tokyo security forces or other, closely related units. Now the Zone's defenders were seeing troops form elsewhere in North America in amongst the rest of the Jinsei units. Maybe they were beginning to run out of men already. Or maybe they were just realizing the reality of their situation and opting for more "expendable" assets. Which meant that Jinsei would probably keep going until they took the whole Zone or simply figured that whatever they were going to get out of it wasn't worth all they were putting into it.

For the meantime, however, there seemed to be a lull in the fighting. Jinsei were probably taking some time off to introduce their new cannon-fodder to the situation and brief them on the living hell they were soon to be facing. For the most part the Zone's defenders were taking this as an opportunity to take a break from the fighting, to re-arm, re-equip, reorganize and, to a degree, unwind. This suited most people. Some however, were not faring so well with this newfound calm.

Vic Hagen and Stuart Finlay were hiding out in a ruined house, relatively close to what passed for the front line in the battle. Their job was to observe what was going on and be an early warning to any increased Jinsei activity. Now, however, it was dull and overcast, and the Jinsei goons were staying indoors. While on the surface this was a good thing, it definitely had its drawbacks.

"I'm bored." Vic said.

Stuart glanced nervously at her. She was sitting against the wall, her rifle in her lap and her goggles pushed up on her forehead. While Stuart was no genius, he'd worked with Vic for long enough to know what happened when she got bored. "Er... You okay there, Vic?"


"Um... why don't we do something then?" He said. "How about a game of cards?"

"Can't. Burnt them to keep warm." She shook her head. "Bored."

"Well then... How about we..." He looked around desperately. "You got a book to read?"

"Burn it." She said then leaned back. "Bored"

"Okay then..." He stood up. "How's about we go fishing? The Jinsei guys aren't doing anything at the moment!"

"Jinsei have the riverfront." She said. "Boredty bored."

"Well... how's about we get a drink then and have a good time?"

"All the good places are gone." She replied. "Still bored."

"Scrumping for apples in old Mr. Williams' yard?"

"It's winter. He's got no apples." She said. "Boooorrrreeeeed."

"Street soccer?"

"No ball. Bored."

"Hubcap Frisbee?"

"No hubcap. Very bored."

He looked around desperately. What did he have? A ruined house. What did ruined houses have? Bricks. Not much use. He didn't want to play brick and stick baseball again. He still had scars from the last time he and Vic did that. Think, boy, think. "Um... Chasing small harmless animals?"

"Its winter!" She said. "They're smart. They're hiding. I'm bored."

"Constructing postmodern sculptures out of the debris of today's society in a way to be symbolic of the eventual downfall of western civilization?" He was desperate.

Vic looked up for a second. "Could do. What do we have?"

"Um, bricks and wood." He said. "Very few consumer goods."

"Not much use then." She said. "Bored bored bored bored bored."

He looked out the window. Still nobody there. Only one other option then. "How about we play... going out and causing trouble?"

Vic sat bolt upright. "All righty!" she said, beaming. "It's my favorite game!"

For the last few days, the Jinsei troops in the Zone had been rather quiet. No new attacks, no new offensives, no nothing. The word on the street was that they were bringing in new troops from other branches and giving them time to be bought up to speed on the situation here in the Zone. It meant that the defenders had time to catch their breath and take it easy for a few minutes before the fighting started again.

For the recently united Brown Armband-Red Snakes (II) gang, it was an opportunity to relax a bit. The Brown Armbands had, due to the location of their hangout, been one of the first gangs to be hit hard by the Jinsei offensive. Two-thirds of them were now either dead or in Jinsei's custody. The rest, having effectively taken over the much larger Red Snakes (II) gang through their leaders, er, decisive negotiations, were taking it easy while they had the chance.

"So, you guys thought about what you gonna do next after this is all over?" Tom asked. He, Dick and Harry were slumped in a room in the Red Snakes' headquarters - actually an old warehouse office - polishing off the last of the beer and chocolate donuts. The figured that when the next offensive began it wouldn't do them any good to have any left over.

"Well." Harry began. Far form the sharpest tool in the shed, he wasn't known for thinking ahead. "I'm gonna get me a new hawg. Me current bike is junk." They nodded sagely. Harry's hog had taken a lot of abuse in their escape form their old headquarters. The way that Jinsei guy had bounced off it hadn't helped. "What about you, Tom?"

"I figured I was gonna go back to Oz." He began. "Me uncle has got a Grape Soda company and I was thinkin' of getting into it and earn me some money for a change." That sounded like a good idea to everyone. Getting shot at was rapidly loosing its appeal. "You, Dick?"

"Well," He began, adjusting his glasses. "I was going to return to Oxford and submit my paper on the decline and fall of western capitalist society based on my experiences here in the Zero Zone and my interactions with its inhabitants, such as you fine fellows."

There was a long pause.

"What?" Harry finally asked.

"I'm going to write about what happened here." Dick summarized.

"Oh." They both nodded.

"What are you three doing?" Sara stepped into the room, looking angry. This was no surprise to them. She'd been angry nonstop since the Zone Invasion.

"Um." Tom began. "Drinking."

"And eating donuts." Harry added.

"I see," she said. "You got any to spare?"

Allan grabbed the last of the hanging files from his drawer, and dumped them on top of the huge pile of paper on his desk. That should be the lot of it, he thought.

"Evening Allan!" Karen said as she walked by. Out of uniform and bundled up for the cold trip home, she looked like a furry beachball. "Are you going to do anything this weekend?"

"Ib celading oubt by dedsk." He replied. His nose was still out of shape form when Sandra had hit him after getting out of the Zone.

"Well." Karen said looking at the pile of papers on his desk. "Good thing too. That's a big mess you've got there. Can I help?"

"NO!" He shouted. "I bean, dats all rid." He said. "I can banage id."

"Okay." She said. "Anyway, I'm going to my sister's birthday this weekend. I'm going to see my family and all that who I haven't seen in ages."

Great. Karen's leggy curvy sister. There was no justice in this world.

"Jolly good." Crayse added as he walked over to his desk. 'Putting in some late work, I see. Good gob, man. I'll put you in for overtime for this."

"Dank you, dir" He replied.

"Are you doing anything on the weekend, captain?" Karen asked.

"A spot of the theater, actually" He replied. "My other half and I are going to see Shakespeare's Tempest. It's always been one of her favorites." He smiled. "I feel that we could all use a little and refinement in our lives every now and then."

"Indeeb." He said trying to arrange his pile in some way that he could keep it all together and not let any of them see what was actually in it.

"Ah, Tatsuna." Crayse said. Alan stuck his head up. He liked looking at Tatsuna at least. She was very easy on the eyes. Pity she was also insane. "How about you? Planning for a fulfilling weekend away from the job?"

"Actually it's the monthly meeting of the rifle club." She replied. "We're going to a trade fair tomorrow and then upstate for some hunting. Should get me in excellent shape and a good frame of mind for work on Monday."

"Jolly good." Crayse said and smiled.

Alan didn't want to think about it, He'd seen what happened when Tatsuna had firearms.

"Anyway, we'll see you later Alan." Crayse finished. "Don't work too hard and have a jolly good weekend."

He waited until they were all gone before scooping up the pile of papers and shoveling them into a garbage bag. "Stupid bloody Karen." He muttered. "Stupid bloody Sandra too. Why'd she have to go and ruin everything?" He carried the bag out the back of the station. Passing the stations garbage bins, he proceeded out into the back street behind the station. Making sure nobody was looking, he emptied the contents of the bag into a rubbish bin. After checking the bag thoroughly to make sure he'd gotten every last scrap of it, he struck a match and dumped it in the bin.

He'd kept all his 'personal' files on paper rather then computer. In a police station, nobody looked at paper. They never wanted to. It had been a foolproof way of running things. Pity about the fools, he thought.

For Shion, since the invasion, life had been nothing but work. In the past month, offers for her services had come crawling out of the woodwork. Some were important, but many she found to be beneath her. Regardless, she found herself working almost nonstop for the last few weeks.

Today was different. Today there had been no job offers. Today, no-one had come crawling to her for a petty rescue mission. Today she had to herself. She had spent most of the day lying indulgently in her bed, dressed in little more than a thin robe, killing the time and relaxing as best she could.

And now there was a buzz on her doorbell. She rolled her eyes, hoping that whoever it was would simply give up and go away. But again came the buzzing. She sighed to herself and rolled over to her intercom. As if it was too much effort, she slowly reached out and pressed the "Receive" button.

The screen flashed to life. Outside her door was Aoi, shuffling from foot to foot, looking nervous. She was clutching a few video cases to her chest. At her side was a plastic bag, with what looked like take-out containers and beer. Shion shook her head. Of course, who else would be interrupting her?

"Aoi? What are you doing?" she said over the intercom.

She watched as the younger woman looked around, then found the camera in the door frame. "I just called by, y'know, to say hello."

Shion blinked in surprise. "Really?"

"Well, my roommate was out of town, and I was- I figured you'd be lonely here, so..."

Shion couldn't help but notice her slip, and smiled. She peered closely at the video cases, making out some names. "Esper Weapon 6?"

Aoi flushed with embarrassment. "They were in the cheap bin at the local video library."

Shion continued to read off the labels. "Cyborg-Ninja Warriors? Esper Versus Cyber?"

Aoi scratched her head with her free hand. "C'mon, it's not all trash... I picked up some recent action flicks, a comedy or two, romance... Martial arts workouts featuring ripped guys in Speedos...

Shion raised her eyebrows, suddenly interested. "And the food?"

"Just some Chinese take-out."

"Beer?" she asked, peering down at the plastic bag.

Aoi smiled broadly. "Lots of it. Asahi, because I know you like it."

Shion couldn't help but smile to herself. Aoi's small slip-up played through her head. 'Out of town and I was... lonely.' She finally said "I'll get the TV ready."

"I knew you'd say that," Aoi said before Shion cut the intercom.

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